This past summer at training camp, Sean McVay was standing in a team hotel hallway contemplating the simplest way to boil down the Los Angeles Rams’ franchise-turning gamble on Matthew Stafford. He peeled through the layers separating a who’s-who of NFL MVPs at the position. He started with Tom Brady, moved swiftly to Aaron Rodgers and wrapped up with Patrick Mahomes.
“When the game or a play is right, they’re in that rhythm and they’re automatic,” McVay said. “And when it’s not right, they can make it right. That’s where separation occurs at the quarterback position.”
That, in a nutshell, is why McVay wanted Stafford. He saw the damage that type of quarterback can inflict. He got cut by it. He lost a Super Bowl because of it. And out of sheer refusal to repeat it every season, he uprooted the most important position on his team to respond to it.
And three weeks into this NFL season, including Sunday’s 34-24 win over Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he’s reaping the reward for it. Not only with a 3-0 start and a win over the defending Super Bowl champions, but with a quarterback in Stafford who is looking capable of contending for league MVP this season.
Sunday’s tilt between Stafford 2.0 and Brady 2.0 was as much about the postseason as it was an early measuring stick. The Rams went into last offseason knowing they needed kryptonite for Brady and the other elite quarterbacks lurking in January and February. They had to know their quarterback in 2021 was capable of leveling the playing field at the position when it matters most.
Week 3 of the regular season might not accomplish that, but it can serve as a sign that the Rams are on the right track with their union of McVay and Stafford. And it should, given that among the elites at quarterback — MVP favorites like Brady, Rodgers, Mahomes and Josh Allen — Stafford has looked the sharpest and cleanest. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the hero ball being played by the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, Stafford would be the league’s clear MVP favorite in the early going.
For the Rams, it’s a huge win that eases a twinge of offseason anxiety that had to be lingering beneath the Stafford trade. After all, it’s not often that a team can punch a sizable hole in its salary cap and draft capital in one massive dice roll. That’s what the Rams did when they incurred the single-largest dead cap charge in NFL history (to the tune of $24.7 million) by dealing Jared Goff along with two first-round draft picks and a third-round selection in exchange for Stafford.
It was a move that was simultaneously stunning in its admission of one mistake (Goff’s extension) while also remarkably transparent about how much was wagered on the next few years of a Super Bowl window. As much as McVay and general manger Les Snead sold the Stafford acquisition as a “must” move, there was no denying that its failure could also be the kind of thing that doomed both. It not only had to work, it had to get off to a fast start, too. If it hadn’t, we’d be talking about a tsunami of pressure and criticism now rather than a tidal wave of momentum as the Rams crack the seal on a remarkably tough NFC West schedule next week.
But we are where we are as the fast start has materialized. The gamble has paid off. In the early going, Stafford has been everything the Rams believed he could be. It was worth their press to get a deal done quickly last offseason before the bidding war that they anticipated had an opportunity to pick up steam. And it would have, with the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers all making serious inquiries before the Rams threw down their draft pick hammer.
It was a decisive moment that has looked better with each passing week, as Stafford has showcased some of the qualities that made him such a sizable upgrade from Goff. McVay danced around those traits every time he spoke about Goff's downside. If anything, McVay constantly went out of his way to keep from criticizing any part of his game. But you only needed to listen to him describe Stafford to understand what he wanted in his new quarterback and didn’t like in his old one. His description almost always flowed through other league elites or MVP-caliber quarterbacks.
“When everything is right and it’s in rhythm, those guys are pretty close to automatic,” McVay said of elite quarterbacks. “I actually think there are a lot of guys like that. But when it’s not right — when the three-technique beats the man-side guard in a six-man slide protection and all the sudden he’s in your face — what does it look like with how you fight through that? That’s where the creativity that these high-level quarterbacks really start to separate themselves from everyone else. It might look different the way Tom Brady is doing that compared to Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. But it’s there for those guys. Matthew has that ability. He’s going to be automatic when it’s right, but there’s going to be creativity when it doesn’t go according to design. He can find a way to make it right.”
“The game makes sense to him,” McVay said.
Most important, McVay’s game makes sense to him. That’s what all of this is about. He has a quarterback with all the special tools and who is wired physically and mentally in a way that can grow with McVay. Or at the very least, operate at a high level without McVay having to constantly create perfection around him. That is something Stafford has shown this season — that he’s capable of separating himself when things don’t break perfectly (see: the running game).
So now we know: Stafford can outduel Brady and win a big game in September, playing like an MVP and making the bosses look smart. But this kryptonite has to last. Not only against Brady, but against Rodgers or Murray or Russell Wilson. And come February, maybe against Mahomes or Allen or Justin Herbert.
That’s the class McVay believes Stafford belongs in — a running MVP debate for the next five months, and the ultimate validation of one of the most expensive gambles in NFL history.